The ruling Awami League's mayoral candidates won big in two city corporations and the BNP contender was leading in one in yesterday's battle of ballots, marred by widespread electoral irregularities.
In Barisal, the BNP and four other parties boycotted the polls, alleging ballot stuffing and ousting of their polling agents by the ruling party men.
The polls in Sylhet were rejected by the BNP and two other parties on the same grounds. They demanded a re-election.
In Rajshahi, the BNP mayoral candidate refused to cast his vote citing his frustration.
The common picture of the three cities was the ruling party supporters or activists wearing badges of boat, the electoral symbol of AL, turned up in huge number and took control of the premises, entrances and even inside of the many polling stations in a gross violation of the electoral law.
The returning officers announced the results around midnight. The counts show that AL's AHM Khairuzzaman Liton secured 1,65,096 votes in Rajshahi, while Mosaddek Hossain Bulbul of BNP, the immediate-past mayor, bagged 77,700.
In Sylhet, the BNP was about to retain its stronghold as party candidate Ariful Haque Chowdhury was leading by a small margin, securing 90,496 votes while Badruddin Ahmed Kamran of AL got 85,870.
Polling at the city's two centres, which have 4,787 voters listed, was suspended due to violence. Returning Officer Alimuzzaman referred the matter to the Election Commission headquarters in the capital.
The Barisal city dwellers will see a new face in the mayor office as Serniabat Sadik Abdullah, son of veteran AL leader Abul Hasnat Abdullah, got 1,07,353 votes and BNP's Mujibur Rahman Sarwar 13,135.
In the polls violence in Barisal and Sylhet, a magistrate and seven journalists, including a reporter of The Daily Star, were injured.
A mayoral candidate, Manisha Chakraborty of BSD, was assaulted as she protested snatching of ballot papers by AL supporters at a polling station in ward-17 in Barisal. She got 1,917 votes.
Twelve correspondents and three photographers of The Daily Star visited 111 out of 395 polling centres in the three cities and saw how the AL activists and supporters exercised power to influence voting in many of the centres.
Our correspondents reported incidents of ballot stuffing, casting fake votes and driving out or barring rival polling agents.
As per electoral rules, no campaigns and show of strength like gatherings are allowed within 400 yards of the centres during the voting. Anyone violating this may face up to two years in prison.
But many AL men apart from polling agents stayed inside the polling booths and moved from one booth to another without any obstruction.
A huge number of law enforcers were deployed in the cities but they mostly played the role of silent spectators.
The ruling AL brushed aside all the allegations and claimed that the voting underwent in a festive mood and that the BNP was out to make it controversial.
Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda expressed satisfaction over the three city polls.
"We never want irregularities but there were some [during the voting]. Those who boycotted the election can say how they viewed the election. But I am satisfied with the three city polls."
BNP leaders had already been apprehensive about free and fair elections, saying the AL might resort to “vote rigging” in the elections like it did in the Khulna and Gazipur polls.
In the run-up to the elections, a number of BNP leaders and activists were arrested and harassed, a feature that was seen ahead of the Khulna and Gazipur elections.
The poling agents of BNP candidates were allegedly driven out of all the polling stations during the two city elections, held on May 15 and June 26. Supporters of BNP candidates were hardly seen at the centres dominated by AL men.
A major feature of yesterday's polls was the boycott of election in Barisal -- mayoral contenders of BNP, Jatiya Party, Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD) and Bangladesh Islami Andolan announced it.
Voting was cancelled in one centre and suspended in 15 others following different irregularities there. There are 123 polling centres in Barisal.
At a press conference around noon, Mujibur Rahman Sarwar announced the polls boycott, alleging that the ballot papers in 70 to 80 centres were stamped in favour of AL's mayoral candidate even before the voting began.
Besides, the polling agents of BNP and other parties were not allowed in the polling centres, he said.
"I was elected MP four times and mayor once. But I never saw such an election during any government's tenure. This government could just announce and take it all without holding such a farcical election.”
Sarwar said they were doubtful whether the election would be fair since the AL candidate is a relative of the prime minister. "We were assured by the prime minister and the Election Commission [of fair polls], but our apprehension came true."
However, AL's Sadik Abdullah, after casting vote at Barisal College Centre, told reporters that the elections were being held in a free and peaceful way. "I am hopeful about my victory."
In Rajshahi, BNP's Mosaddek Hossain Bulbul refrained from casting vote and staged a sit-in at Islamia College centre.
"I did not cast vote. I am concerned over democracy that is now in jeopardy," he said, adding that he visited 35 centres and found irregularities everywhere.
"That's why I am sitting here," he said. "Who would I fight? Law enforcement agencies, presiding officers, polling officers -- everyone is involved," he added.
AL candidate Liton, however, said he would clinch a landslide victory against his rivals.
"It was a free and festive election. After the independence, the countrymen did not see any election like what was held in Rajshahi city today [yesterday]," he told reporters after polling ended.
Earlier, after casting vote at Satellite Town High School, he said, "I am almost cent percent sure that I will win. I have seen enthusiasm among voters as they want a change."
Most of yesterday's incidents of violence were reported from Sylhet.
Executive Magistrate Motiur Rahman was hurt by brick chunks hurled during fights between followers of two councillor candidates in Kumarpara around 1:30pm while he was passing through the area in a car.
Proloy Kumar Saha, assistant returning officer, confirmed that Motiur was injured.
Voting was also suspended at Khasdobir Government Primary School for half an hour after AL men allegedly snatched ballot papers in the presence of AL's mayor candidate Kamran.
Kamran entered a booth of the polling station while his supporters stormed two others, said witnesses.
The supporters allegedly drove all the agents of rival candidates, voters and presiding officers from the centre, alleged Rasel Miah, an agent of the BNP candidate.
Soon after the polling ended, BNP's mayoral candidate Arif at a press conference at his office in Kazi Tula area said he would reject the election result whatever that would be.
"It was not a theft of votes; it was a robbery in broad daylight in the presence of law enforcers," he said.
Later at night, after it was known that he was leading in polls, Arif told journalists, “This is the victory of the people.”
Asked about his earlier statement that he wanted re-polling whatever the result would be, he said, “I had said if rigging continues, I will demand re-election.”
In his reaction after casting vote, Kamran said, "The voting is going on in a fair manner and will end likewise."
In the 2013 polls in Barisal, Khulna, Sylhet, Rajshahi and Gazipur city corporations, BNP-backed candidates won all the five mayoral posts months before the 2014 national elections.
With the two AL candidates coming out victorious yesterday, the ruling party swept back to four city corporations months ahead of parliamentary election likely to be held in December.